Progressive Group Recruits 2020 Primary Challenger To Conservative Texas Democrat

Jessica Cisneros, a human rights attorney, hopes to unseat Rep. Henry Cuellar.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) speaks after a bipartisan meeting with President Donald Trump in Sept. 2017. His record of cooperating with the president is a sore point for the left.
Rep. Henry Cuellar (D-Texas) speaks after a bipartisan meeting with President Donald Trump in Sept. 2017. His record of cooperating with the president is a sore point for the left.

Jessica Cisneros, a human rights and immigration attorney from Laredo, Texas, announced Thursday that she is taking on Rep. Henry Cuellar, a seven-term Democrat who represents Texas’ 28th Congressional District, in the 2020 election.

In her announcement video, Cisneros, 26, took aim at Cuellar’s conservative legislative record, noting that he cast votes to punish so-called sanctuary cities and prevent federal funding of abortion. In the last Congress, Cuellar, 63, voted with President Donald Trump nearly 70% of the time.

“He’s Trump’s favorite Democrat,” Cisneros says in the video.

“Our economy and our immigration systems are broken. And while the president fans the flames of hate and bigotry, his cruel anti-immigrant policies are pitting Texans against each other,” she says in the two-minute spot. “These policies don’t represent the values of south Texans, and the politicians who defend these policies don’t represent us.”

Cisneros, the daughter of Mexican immigrants, was recruited to run by Justice Democrats, the left-wing group behind Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s primary upset in New York in 2018. She is the group’s first candidate of the 2020 election cycle.

Cisneros “represents the voices we so desperately need in Congress right now ― millennial, working-class, Latina, first-generation immigrant, and dedicating her life to giving back to her community,” said Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas. “Our grassroots progressive movement has an opportunity to build a more accountable Democratic Party by unseating one of the worst amid our ranks and ushering in a new generation of leaders.”

In keeping with Justice Democrats’ progressive critieria, Cisneros is running on a platform of support for immigration reform, Medicare for All, the Green New Deal and tuition-free public college. Unlike Cuellar, she has vowed not to accept corporate PAC money.

Justice Democrats, founded by alumni of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run, revealed in January that Cuellar, a member of the centrist Blue Dog Coalition, would be the group’s first target for a primary challenge. The group put out a casting call and created a fund that could serve as a booster kit for anyone who answered the appeal.

In addition to more conservative votes on abortion and immigration policy, Cuellar has an “A” rating from the National Rifle Association and raises less than 1% of his campaign cash from small donors. He sparked the ire of some Democratic activists in Texas when he raised money for Republican Rep. John Carter, who was facing a spirited Democratic challenge in 2018.

Cuellar is an alluring adversary for left-leaning Democrats, because he represents a safe Democratic seat. Trump received just 38.5% of the vote in the district in 2016.

As a result, the Democratic establishment will have a hard time arguing that a challenge against him jeopardizes the party’s fortunes in the general election.

After a 2018 cycle with a handful of high-profile wins and many more difficult losses, Justice Democrats announced in November that it would be focusing exclusively on primary challenges in safe Democratic seats.

Texas’ 28th District, a gerrymandered patch of land that runs from East of San Antonio down to the border with Mexico, tests the ability of insurgent left to reach voters outside of its bailiwick. In recent years, anti-establishment Democratic candidates have had more success among largely white, middle-class liberals. Texas’ 28th is older, impoverished and overwhelmingly Latino.

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